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Former Virginia officials push back on attacks on equity by conservatives

Conservative Virginia politicians have joined the chorus of critics who don't like the term "equity," but they're being met with backlash.

RICHMOND, Va. — By most definitions, equity means fair and impartial, but the word has become cancerous among some of Virginia's conservative politicians.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently claimed that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the Commonwealth have gone too far.

In an interview at the Milken Institute 2023 Global Conference earlier in May, Youngkin said merit and excellence were being compromised in order to achieve equal outcomes.

"When equity overcomes excellence, we got a problem, so we're trying to reverse that," Youngkin said, citing a Fairfax County Schools controversy in which merit commendations for high school students were temporarily withheld allegedly to not hurt the feelings of the students not receiving recognition.

Republican Scott Taylor, the former congressman for Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, often shows his dislike for equity in what he posts on Twitter, even calling it communism.

"In my opinion, the mere existence of a DEI officer or staff, that's the root cause of division in an organization," Taylor said. "You're better spent spending money to upskill employees."

Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, ascribes to the notion that achieving equity means taking away from one group or person to give to another, even if that person is not as deserving. He believes that dynamic has played out in the military. 

"We're a lot stronger for our diversity in the military, but our national security is harmed, our performance as a unit, our cohesion as a unit is harmed when you elevate people not based on merit," Taylor argued.

But as the anti-equity chorus grows louder, so do the voices pushing back on the attack.

Former Gov. Douglas Wilder, the first African American elected as governor in the United States, called the arguments against equity ignorant. Equity historically means fairness, he said.

"Equity doesn't mean that you're going to have the same outcome," Wilder said. "It means if I bought a house, there are not obstacles put in my path. People forget what redlining meant."

When the state's chief diversity officer, Martin Brown, a Youngkin appointee, called DEI dead during a recent speech at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Wilder said the governor needed to fire him.

READ MORE | Virginia's chief diversity officer faces backlash over 'equity' comments

"I say to the governor, I say to the governor, it's very important that you understand and learn a bit more about Virginia's history, a bit more about the people who serve you and your appointment," Wilder said.

Wilder says the equity debate underscores the need to teach history to further an understanding of how historical inequities still affect society today. 

The L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University is home to the Research Institute for Social Equity (RISE). As a hub for equity research, it is one of the programs targeted by Youngkin when he was dumping the word "equity" from the titles of public initiatives.

Wilder pushed back. "We had to tell him no and I had to remind him and others that our school is ranked number one in Virginia."

Credit: VCU
From left: L. Douglas Wilder School of Gov't & Public Affairs Dean Susan Gooden, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and RISE Director Nakeina Douglas-Glenn

"We talk about in our administration, opportunity. We have diversity, opportunity and inclusion," Youngkin said at the Milken Institute conference.

Under state code, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is charged to address "systemic inequities in state government practices." Youngkin changed the office to Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion that's now headed by Brown.

Dr. Janice Underwood served as director of the inaugural office, which was created with bipartisan support under then-Gov. Ralph Northam in 2020.

"We used the DEI principles to elevate the work we were doing with COVID, with the equity leadership taskforce and as we thought about how to attract businesses, " said Underwood, who is now the chief DEI and Accessibility (DEIA) director at the Office of Personnel Management in President Joe Biden's administration. She credits DEI principles as helping the state rank as the best state in which to do business in 2021 by CNBC.

Credit: Janice Underwood
Hampton University students participate in the "Level Up in Public Service" internship program.

Underwood points to an example of what equity looks like, the Level Up in Public Service internship program that her office launched at Hampton University to ignite a student interest in federal government careers. 

They also helped students apply for the jobs of which they may not have otherwise been aware.

"So that's equity in action," Underwood said. "It's not anything to be afraid of, it's about making opportunities available."

Work done by the DEIA in just the last few years:

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